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In Virginia, Democrats Learn the Shape of an Anti-Trump Coalition

In their rousing election victories in Virginia on Tuesday, Democrats learned two important things: They found out what an anti-Trump coalition looks like, and they discovered it can be a winning one, writes Gerald F. Seib.

By

Gerald F. Seib

In their rousing election victories in Virginia on Tuesday, Democrats learned two important things: They found out what an anti-Trump coalition looks like, and they discovered it can be a winning one.

That coalition combines upper-scale white voters, millennials, minorities, suburban women and single women. Exit polling indicates that those groups not only went heavily for Democratic victor Ralph Northam in the governor’s race, but performed better for him than they did for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

That tide produced a stunning nine-point victory for Mr. Northam—almost twice as large as the margin by which Mrs. Clinton carried the state—and it’s hard to interpret it as anything other than a reaction to President Donald Trump. He is the biggest actor on every political stage right now; almost everything happens in the Trump context.

In fact, the best news for Democrats may have been the signs that their wave of energy carried beyond the top race and down the ballot to elections for the state House of Delegates. Many thought Mr. Northam could win at the top of the ballot (though most concluded only barely), but nobody thought Democrats would be on the verge of turning the state legislature blue.

Still, there also are multiple, less-obvious cautionary notes for Democrats in Virginia, starting with the tendency to over-interpret such an off-off-year election.

Beyond that, this winning coalition brought decisive margins in blue parts of the state—the Washington suburbs, college towns and upper-scale coastal areas—but it wasn’t enough to break into the swath of red territory in central and southern Virginia. That part of the state continues to look and act a lot like Trump country in the interior of America.

Mrs. Clinton learned what happens in a presidential race when you run up victories, even big ones, in areas Democrats are strong but don’t crack through in areas where the party is weaker.

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Moreover, Democratic success in Virginia probably will do more to paper over than resolve the Democrats’ split between establishment groups and the party’s progressive wing. Liberals had backed former Rep. Tom Perriello in the primary, were under-enthused by Mr. Northam, and thought he should have stressed economic issues more. They were particularly unhappy when he hedged his position supporting sanctuary cities that provide a haven for undocumented aliens. In short, the residual problem for Democrats is that progressives wanted a different kind of candidate and a different kind of campaign.

The good news for them, of course, is that all signs suggest that liberal activists largely swallowed those misgivings and went to work, and to the polls, anyway. We’ll see which side of the coin—tensions at the beginning or unity at the end—proves to be the most important dynamic elsewhere.

The underlying proposition of the campaign of losing Republican Ed Gillespie, meanwhile, was that he could win by having, in the words of populist political crusader Stephen Bannon, “Trumpism without Trump.” That is, that Mr. Gillespie could embrace Trump-like themes—the dangers from violent immigrants, the virtues of Confederate monuments—without embracing Mr. Trump himself personally.

It didn’t work as hoped, obviously. Why? For an answer, look at how two particularly energized Democratic groups performed Tuesday in Virginia.

Single women, inspired by Hillary Clinton and the chance to elect the nation’s first female president, were a big part of the Clinton coalition in 2016. But, one year after Mr. Trump became president, they turned out to be an even more-potent part of the Ralph Northam coalition.

Exit polling by Edison Media Research for the Washington Post and other news organizations shows that unmarried women went for the Democrat by a stunning 77% to 22% margin. That is to say, they went Democratic by more than three to one. The Democratic vote among single women this time was 16 percentage points higher than the vote they produced for Mrs. Clinton in 2016.

There is little except the arrival of a President Trump to explain the difference. In short, single women look an awful lot like a constituency that is newly energized.

The latest WSJ-NBC News poll looks at how President Trump is currently fairing in counties that voted for him in the 2016 presidential election. WSJ's Gerald F. Seib analyzes other findings from the survey. Photo: AP

Second, consider the performance of millennials, a core Democratic constituency, on Tuesday. NextGen America, a liberal activist group, chose nine precincts across Virginia where millennials make up a majority and monitored them to determine enthusiasm among young voters.

In each precinct—most around college campuses—residents aged 18 to 40 made up at least 60% of voters. In all of them, voter turnout was up over the totals seen in the governor’s election four years ago. In the area around Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, turnout more than doubled.

Energy matters in politics. And on Tuesday in Virginia, at least, Democrats seemed to capture it.

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